Panto is one of the cherished hand-me-down experiences associated with Christmas in the city.
A new exhibition in Pearse Street Library delves into the people, posters and paraphernalia associated it with it on the theatre stages of our capital.
With thanks to Stephanie Rousseau with Dublin City Council.
“The dramatic entertainments are varied and amusing, and the pantomime display goes off each night with increased smoothness and effect.”
In its earliest form, pantomime was essentially an iteration of Comnmedia dell’arte, a type of street theatre with its origins in 16th century Italy. It had set types of characters, including Arlechino (a mischievous miscreant, later known as the ‘Harlequin’), Columbine (Arlechino’s lover), Pantaloon (Columbine’s father) and a clown character.
In Dublin, newspaper articles refer to pantomimes in the Theatre Royal, Smock Alley as early as 1737 and it had become an established feature of the Irish theatre repertoire by the early 1820s. It was adopted and localised for an Irish audience over this time with pantomime dames such as the Window Twankey being introduced alongside with local jokes and mythology.
An 1850 review in The Freeman’s Journal of a pantomime in the Queen’s Theatre on Pearse Street which was originally the Adelphi had the following to say:
“The Pantomime…at this favourite little theatre continues to attract crowded audiences every evening. The dramatic entertainments are varied and amusing, and the pantomime display goes off each night with increased smoothness and effect. The costumes and scenery are really most creditable to the good taste of the designers and the entertainments may be said fairly to deserve the support they have received from the public.”
By the 1870s, the Harlequinade saw a decline, and pantomime stories as we know them, based on fairy tales, began to emerge.
Cinderella, Dick Whittington, Aladdin and Robinson Crusoe were popular stories adapted for a new genre of pantomime. Gender switching also became a regular feature of Victorian panto.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Irish theatres could no longer rely on the theatres of London to supply pantomimes. However, many home grown productions flourished.
The Gaiety pantos, which started in 1874, continued throughout the war including a 1939 production of Jimmy and the Leprechaun.
The mid-1940s saw the development of the Abbey’s Irish language pantomimes, many directed by Frank Dermody, which ran for 21 years until the mid-1960s.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, the iconic figures of the scene included Noel Purcell, Jimmy O’Dea and Ursula Doyle, Jack Cruise and Vernon Hayden, while the 1970s saw Maureen Potter reach her heyday.
In this same decade, The Billie Barry kids emerged – another panto stalwart to this day.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Twink and June Rodgers performed in rival pantos in the Olympia and Gaiety while Dustin the Turkey also emerged as a subversive presence on stage.
Alan Hughes started his long-running stint in the Tivoli up until its demolition and has established a ‘Pantodome’ in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham this winter.
Pantomime still flourishes in the city and here is a selection of posters and faces associated with it down through the years.
Born in Dublin in 1900, Purcell started his career in the theatre working as a call boy in the Gaiety at the age of 12. He graduated to various walk-on and small parts in amateur and professional productions.
Purcell is particularly associated with the Theatre Royal where he performed as Dame Chatterbox in the 1943 production of Puss in Boots, Dame Doolittle in Jack and the Beanstalk (1945) and Dame Wimple of Waffle in 1952.
The 1945 production of Mother Goose attracted an attendance of 258,000 people over its run, making it the most successful production ever staged there.
In 1984, he was given the Freedom of Dublin along with Maureen Potter who he first stared with back in 1935.
Maureen Potter enjoyed a career spanning 70 years in the entertainment business, performing not only in pantomimes but also in variety shows, television, cinema and straight theatre.
Born in 1925, she toured Europe with Jack Hylton’s band in the 1930s as a Shirley Temple impersonator, billed as the Pocket Mimic. In 1938, she performed in front of Adolf Hitler. He was so impressed with her that he sent her a handwritten note, which was promptly mined by her mother.
At the age of 10, she performed in one of Jimmy O’Dea’s pantomimes performing a sketch mimicking the Lord Mayor of Dublin Alfie Byrne.
After O’Dea’s death in 1965, Potter took the lead in the Gaiety pantos and become known as the Queen of Pantomime in Dublin where she performed until 1987.
She became the first star to place their hand prints outside the Theatre in 2001.
“You feel that you really have taken the weight and worry and loneliness from people for a few hours, you send them out from the theatre feeling happier and more human. If you can do that with every performance you can’t ask for a more worthwhile job.”
Ursula Doyle, one of the legends of 1950s panto who married fellow panto thespian Jimmy O’Dea, talking to Woman’s Way magazine in 1973
“A little one came flying down the aisle and said ‘Scarlet, you big fat cow, I hate you!”
“My earliest memories are coming in to the bright lights of the city from Tallaght village. It was a big treat.
The first stop was Clery’s with my mother and sister Linda, then we’s get our Cheeky Charlie’s on Henry Street before making our way to Grafton Street where we’d end up outside Switzer’s.
It was magical watching the moving characters in the windows.
“We’d make our way up to the Gaiety to see Maureen Potter. I never thought I’d end up on the stage myself in time. The magic of panto is that children are interacting, they are going to see their heroes come alive in this big theatre, normally they’d only hear the story the of Jack and the Beanstalk or Cinderella.
“I remember once playing the Ugly Sisters with Eileen Reid in which we tore up Cinderella’s invite to the Ball. A little one came flying down the aisle and said ‘Scarlet, you big fat cow, I hate you!’
“We’d have done about 118 shows over eight weeks. It’s hard work and most of the money always went into the production. Times have changed and there’s more reality TV stars now who are are big for a year. I think it’s important to keep the traditional elements such as the whopper cushion and pie in the face in it.”
The June Rodgers Christmas Show is at Taylors Three Rock until December 31
“You can feel the history of all the legends who performed here in the building.”
“The Billie Barry kids have been associated with the Gaiety panto for 49 years. I remember being part of the first one which was Robin Hood and starred Austin Gafney and Danny Cummins and was directed by Ursula Doyle. They came out to the school (founded by her mother Billie in 1964) and auditioned us.
Maureen Potter would always insist the kids would learn from the professionals. She insisted they stand in the wings and observe. She also set up a mock panto in her Green Room where they would come in and rehearse for her. It’s a tradition we have continued and now the children get to perform their own versions of the panto on the main stage on the last Friday.
l don’t think there’s anything more magical than live theatre – for many the first thing they hear is a live orchestra – you can see the excitement, their eyes open wide and interaction with performers.
Daryn Crosbie, the director of Aladdin, is a former Billie Barry kid who went on to become a dancer and choreographer before becoming a writer and director.
What’s important in the casting of children, besides their acting skills, is that they have stamina. They need to want to be on stage from November until January. Every single show is precious and you want them to want to be happy here. You can feel the history of all the legends who performed here in the building.”
The exhibition is based in the Dublin Room of Pearse Street Library (138-144 Pearse Street) and runs until the end of January 2020.
Opening hours: Monday-Thursday 10am-8pm Friday-Saturday 10am -5pm. Free Admission.
Illustration: Ruan Van Vliet